Council spending on essential items for children in need rose 20% under coalition

Figures obtained by Community Care show councils increasingly having to plug the gaps left by cuts and changes to the welfare system

Photo: Richard Heaven/Flickr

The amount councils spent on basic amenities for families in crisis rose by 20% under the coalition government, research by Community Care has found.

Figures obtained from 98 councils through a Freedom of Information request show a significant increase in ‘stopgap’ payments made under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which places a duty on local authorities to provide assistance to children in need and their families.

The payments, made in ‘kind’ or cash, can be used for essential items such as nappies.

In the London borough of Sutton, for example, the total cost of payments made to families to help cover rent and utilities rose from £11,637 in 2010-11 to £71,684 in 2014-15. The amount spent on providing food and clothing and covering travel costs also more than tripled during this period.

Sutton has reported a year-on-year overspend of its section 17 budget from 2012 onwards – the year welfare reforms, such as the benefit cap and the so-called bedroom tax, were introduced. In 2014-15, the council budgeted £103,900 for section 17. It overspent by nearly £450,000.

‘Deprivation to destitution’

This picture is similar across England. The figures show councils struggling to keep pace with demand, despite an average 27% increase in section 17 budgets over the past five years.

In 2010-11, the gap between budget and spend across the 98 councils was £2.7m. This had widened to £8m by 2014-15. In the 2014-15 financial year, nearly two thirds of councils overspent their section 17 budget.

Section 17 has historically been a ‘last resort’ budget, but the findings suggest more families are regularly having to turn to local authorities for assistance.

Social care commentators said recent cuts to welfare benefits were to blame for the rising levels of need.

Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s University London, said: “It should be no surprise that more and more families are getting into considerable difficulty. Central government, through the social security system, is leaving families stranded.

“Despite their overall cut in government funding, local authorities are working hard but are struggling to assist the families moving from deprivation to destitution.”

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said: “It’s not like we need to scratch our heads over this – a lot of the big children’s charities have done all the work for us, they’ve produced the statistics, we know families are at breaking point.”

Neera Sharma, assistant director for policy and research at Barnardo’s, added: “These findings very much echo our experience of working with families who are living on a low income. We have seen families finding it more difficult to make ends meet, getting into debt and going to food banks.”

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‘Welfare changes’

A report published by Barnardo’s earlier this year said 60% of the charity’s local services had recorded that their service users had been negatively impacted by changes introduced under the 2012 Welfare Reform Act. A further 64% said more families were using food banks as a result of the cuts.

The localisation of the Social Fund and consequent scrapping of crisis loans and community care grants had also left families unsure of where to turn in a crisis, Sharma pointed out.

“There was more money in the Social Fund, it was something people could turn to and it was clear where they could go when in trouble,” she said.

The Social Fund was introduced in 1987 and provided one-off payments through a national administration to help people with costs that are difficult to meet on a low income, such as replacing essential household appliances. It was transferred to local authorities in 2013 but council funding is limited and support is now subject to a strict eligibility criteria.

‘Shrinking provision’

Mansuri said changes to the fund could well have had an impact on section 17 spending.

“There’s a difference between crisis loans and the kind of support that should be given under section 17, we wouldn’t want people to confuse the two,” she said. “However, I think if you spoke to a group of social workers in 2015 a lot of their families would be in crisis-type situations.”

She also pointed to the impact of shrinking provision in the third sector. “If you look at things like children’s centres, where families are getting amazing support and then that just goes, the landscape changes again and inevitably the pressure will then be on the mainstream service.”

Simon Cardy, a registered social worker and member of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN), added there was a lot of pressure on social workers to make use of food banks and parcels. “It’s not something we want to do but if the food banks weren’t there then we’d be really stuck in helping families,” he said.

ANALYSIS: Knowsley Council

Paul Boyce, executive director for children’s services at Knowsley Council, says section 17 figures for his authority are probably an ‘underestimate’ of the assistance being provided.

“The council has always been able to provide people with emergency support but the demand for that has significantly increased,” he says.

“This is often caused by the way the welfare system actually works where, due to oversight or error, there is a delay of weeks and weeks where families are unable to access payments.”

“This has had a significant impact on the way in which we operate as a council around giving out food vouchers and how we refer people to food banks,” he adds.

Knowsley is the second most deprived borough in the UK and the 40% cut made to local government grant funding over the past five years has disproportionately affected areas with the highest need. An analysis, published by the Association of North East Councils, shows the 10% most deprived areas have been hit with a 6-7% deeper cut than the 10% least deprived.

“We are taking real cuts whilst others who don’t need more money are getting more money,” Boyce says. “It feels like either a deliberate policy or a policy that has got unintended consequences, but those unintended consequences are severe.”

Boyce is reluctant to make a link between the high levels of deprivation and the rise in demand on children’s services. But he agrees he has seen an increase in domestic violence and the prevalence of the kind of behaviours that are often connected with poverty and often lead to intervention from social care services.

“We’ve got more children in need than we had two to three years ago, more looked-after children than we had 18 months ago and the same for child protection.”

“I don’t think it’s because people are abusing their children more frequently than they used to, I think a) we’re a bit more sensitive to where the risks are but also b) there are more families in stressful situations that make them more obvious and we can pick them up.”

In 2014, Knowsley’s children’s services department received an ‘inadequate’ rating from Ofsted and has been ‘in intervention’ from the Department for Education while improvements are made. In the meantime, children’s social care has largely been protected from cuts.

But as councils gear up for the next spending review, Boyce is not convinced this can continue. “The difficulty is that as the money diminishes, the amount you’ve got to invest reduces and it may end up, at some point, not being enough.”

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